Although there is no single definition of participatory photography—methods, meaning and practices vary largely—the term generally describes initiatives that aim to ‘empower’, ‘give voice’ and ‘enable social change’ for (mainly) marginalized communities through photography. As Tiffany Fairey puts it in her research paper Whose Pictures Are These? Re-framing the promise of participatory photography (2015), participatory photography initiatives have become more and more mainstream and models and practices increasingly standardized.

The work and practice of Federico Estol, a photographer from Uruguay, is just one example. He refers to his work as a ‘community-based visual storytelling project’. In Shine Heroes, he works together with a group of anonymous shoe shiners in La Paz, Bolivia to create a zine that presents them as superheroes that come to the rescue whenever a shoe is dirty. The shiners must keep their line of work hidden from their own families and their ski masks give them a new shared identity.

In this interview, Federico Estol talks with Eefje Ludwig for LensCulture about the origins of the project, workshopping as a tool for a balanced and rich collaboration, and the range of impacts that projects like these can have on society.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

Eefje Ludwig: Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about how this project came about?

Federico Estol: It came up over dinner when a family member told me about the situation of the shoe shiners of La Paz and the city of El Alto in Bolivia. I started my own investigation and found an amazing story of nearly three thousand shoe shiners that walk the streets daily in order to find clients. They are of all ages and over the last few years they have become a unique social phenomenon in the Bolivian capital.

This urban tribe is distinguished by wearing ski masks so they cannot be identified by acquaintances.The discrimination they face is fought with these masks; no one in their neighborhood knows what their job is. They hide it at school and even their own families think they have a different job when they go from El Alto to the city centre. They leave home as ordinary workers and store their tools and shoe polish at the associations where they have lunch and clean their hands before heading back home to El Alto.

EL: How did you begin working with the shoe shiners?

FE: My investigation led me to get to know one of the social organizations that have been producing the monthly newspaper Hormigón Armado for 16 years. Every newspaper sale helps nearly 60 families of shoe shiners to get an extra income. I thought it might be interesting for them to create a special newspaper edition concerning discrimination that would be made through a participatory process and given out with a street flyer to raise awareness among common citizens. For me, this was a way to go in the opposite direction of what the media would have asked me to do in order to cover a similar story. Ethically, it was also important to try to make the production and spread of the projects useful for all of the people involved.

Over three years I worked with them developing a wide collaboration and cooperation that in a way ended once the photobook was published—though somehow our relationship still exists as the social element of the work is very important to me.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: How did you establish a relationship and trust with the people you were working with?

FE: The collaboration was based on providing images for the newspaper in a way that we could all take part in as actors and creators. At the beginning, while the outcome was collaborative, I found the pictures were too similar to the photographic records of an NGO. I was more interested in leaving that kind of work and producing a different, more conceptual visual style. Together, we all decided that I would take the pictures for the monthly newspaper and the organization supported me for three years.

The shoe shiners stapled the newspapers in return for the copies they would sell. They sell 6,000 copies per month and understand the importance of showing good pictures, so they cooperated by working a few Saturdays on the project. I worked as a volunteer serving mid-afternoon snacks over the first month, and afterwards we started on the photoshoots and did some workshops in order to build the story. We finally managed to design a way to work that creatively turned us into an artistic family and developed a method that enriched me as an author and also provided me with a way to face my future artistic practice.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: So you worked with the shoe shiners for three years. To what extent was there a clear plan and goal before you started working with them? Or did this evolve over the years?

FE: The idea was to start a joint project with them by developing a visual narrative that could dignify them as people, including the activity of handing out the newspaper on the street. We started by taking portraits in daily life, while cooking or sleeping so people could see them as regular citizens. Then we realized that wearing a ski mask was associated to something dangerous or negative—even terrorism—but they didn’t want to be photographed without the mask.

On Saturdays, the shoe shiners have group meetings to discuss content for the newspaper while having a snack. In one of these meetings someone brought a very old edition of the newspaper that had a shoe shiner in a cape with the Superman symbol on his chest on the cover. That image awakened an interest to investigate the origins of that character and soon we discovered a close conceptual connection with shoe shiners. A few days later we succeeded in finding some Bolivian illustrators that were interested in conducting a workshop with us and explaining the foundations of the graphic novel.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: How did this discovery help shape your approach?

FE: After finding this edition of the paper, we then organized a workshop to discuss the key parallels between the shoe shiner and the superhero. These included: using a disguise—the ski mask—to hide their identity; living a double life and concealing their job to family and friends; being persecuted by ‘enemies’ such as the police; using special tools (a shoe shiner’s box with cloth, brushes and shoe polish); having a hideout (the shoe shiner’s associations, where they keep their clothing and boxes safe, and wash before heading home); and finally, serving others by providing a service.

Then, all together, we built a collage storyboard on the everyday life of ‘Los Heroes del Brillo’—the ‘Shine Heroes’. This inspired the narrative for the final photobook. The pictures were taken during photoshoots in the cities of El Alto and La Paz where we drove all over town in a minibus with the shoe shiners as lead actors. In Bolivia there is a local architectural style called ‘cholets’ based on fantastical buildings inspired by the Tiahuanaco ceramics. These provided the perfect scenography to create a fantasy city we named ‘Brillolandia’.

During the photoshoots we thought it would be a good idea to pretend the shoe shiners had superpowers and use the camera flash from inside the sleeves of their jackets. They would have loved to use a laser but it was pretty difficult to get one. We used what we already had, in a very home-made way: a camera flash together with wireless cells and small mirrors. We thought that using the camera flash to pretend they had superpowers would somehow hide the ink on their fingers, something people use to see as shabby and denigrating. They also wore suits donated to the Hormigón Armado organization and, among other touches, we added smoke to the shots of the villain by placing sparklers on his arms. Making the project was very enjoyable; the group felt proud throughout the artistic process.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: A model often used in participatory photography practices consists of a series of workshops where a facilitator introduces photography to a group and the participants start taking pictures around specific themes or issues. You also organized workshops in your project. Can you tell us why they were important to have?

FE: I conducted several workshops and I believe that it is crucial to use this process in the long term. If the process is really participatory, it requires a lot of time. Time is the variable as well as the commitment with the other group members involved. Photographers have a great responsibility to try to go beyond their own points of view and give in to those of others. Egos have no place in this method of working. I believe there has to be a plan, it has to be produced and edited collaboratively so the people portrayed have control of the message of the work and the final outcome.

EL: Can you tell us more about your working process?

FE: We developed a process to define what we wanted to create as a product for the shoe shiners against what harms them; they would like to work without covering their faces, but social prejudices do not allow them to do so. We then started to create collages of scenes, as a storyboard of the everyday lives of the ‘Shine Heroes’. This was pretty interesting as we looked at many comics and created strips with our own words. Then, they selected the buildings they liked the most as proud and wealthy Aymara people live there.

We chose our own clothes and prepared the superpowers and tested smoke sparklers. This process was very helpful for them to distance themselves from their everyday life and enjoy fiction. It took us 10 Saturdays to take pictures going all over the city in a minibus. I took the pictures but I did not act as a ‘director’; by playing and looking at the storyboard, they interpreted every sketch. We edited the raw material all together and the photobook layout was done the same way.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: Usually, a fundamental aspect of participatory photography is that the participant controls what happens to the images or art work. How does ownership work in Shine Heroes? Can you tell us more about what has happened or what is still happening with the images?

FE: At the end, I discussed the way we were going to spread the project with the group, and explained to them how I would use it artistically, mainly in terms of the relationship with the art market and the income we might have. We created a mercantile society which means we share all the earnings from the sale of the pictures in galleries or from photography awards. Recently I was awarded €5,000 at the Portuguese contest ‘Encontros da Imagem’ and I shared half of the award with the shoe shiners’ organization. The idea is to print the photobook over time thanks to the economic support from art events, companies and other sources. I believe that when working together with people in such situations, artists should sustain their commitment for the long-term.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: The project resulted in the production and publishing of a book. Was it a clear goal from the beginning of the project to publish a book? And can you tell us more about how the book came about and who its audience is?

FE: The final edition of the project was a special edition of their own street newspaper, edited collectively and, for the very first time, including pictures in full color so we had to increase the sales prices. Prices for a copy are equal to five shoe shiner services. Printing 6,000 copies was significant for them as they could conquer their social stigma and have a positive impact on their economy. What started as a game to fight discrimination turned into a powerful tool that unexpectedly improved their quality of life. I believe it is a great idea to create a photobook that is a testimony to their place in society transmitted onto the streets. In that way, we can show the world a new format of that kind of photobook: one that can be used as an empowering calling card. And it all comes from a two-way process between the people involved and the artist.

EL: The project has received recognition in photography festivals and prizes around the world. What value has this recognition had for the shoe shiners? And for yourself?

FE: I have already created a few photobooks and I have always been concerned with getting them known outside the photography world. The project ended with a publication they distributed in the streets, inspired by the newspaper they have been selling for 16 years. Our special edition was designed to be distributed in the streets of Bolivia and during this year it was one of the selected projects of the Aperture Foundation Paris Photo Awards. It also won the Cosmos Arles PDF Awards. The series was nominated for the Prix Pictet 2019, won the Emergentes award in the Portuguese festival Encontros Da Imagem and has participated in more than 15 festivals around the world.

Aside from all of this recognition, the most important thing is the fact that we have created an artistic project that has helped the families of 60 shoe shiners. Furthermore, this process allowed us to use photography as a powerful tool against discrimination. All of this was created in a participative way: an act of resistance against the ways that this story is usually visualized.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: As the project is very collaborative, how would you describe your own role in Shine Heroes?

FE: I like to see myself as a medium between the world of visual communication and social causes. I let the experience and group connection conduct the whole process to achieve a final work that both makes sense and will be useful for society. I think that contemporary photography that works with fictional elements tends to move away from social issues and in this way, we waste opportunities to collaborate positively and in a direct way.

This project allowed me to understand that amateur photographers have a great potential to provide ideas and actually break the way visual artists see their work; participatory projects require getting rid of what you feel inside and to give your creativity over in open dialogues with others.

I will keep working on this mixture of photography and poetical speech as part of a group of several artists and a social group that wants to address and explore all kinds of inequality.

Shine Heroes © Federico Estol

EL: Participatory photography initiatives generally promise to empower and enable social change for marginalized communities through photography. How do you feel about the term and practice of participatory photography?

FE: I think participatory photography is a mode of social activism. Here in Latin America, diverse realities coexist and the amount of unexplored histories is a unique characteristic of visual artists born on this continent. Latin American reality has been stereotyped: the media only shows poverty and danger. People who are born here and make visual work should fight against this. It is imperative to use the great capacity of art to transform negative social values through a deep reflection that brings communities into artistic processes.

EL: So what’s next? Is the project completely finalized?

FE: We are now launching a second edition of 6,000 copies of Shine Heroes to be sold on the streets of Bolivia. We wanted other artists to participate by editing their own images for the cover of the monthly newspaper. Moreover, there are some postcards that we also sell at higher prices and we have already published five editions of 1,000 copies. The income from the postcards will be used to get health insurance for all the shoe shiners and their families.

I am sure I will continue using this kind of artistic practice in my following long-term projects as I have learned so much from the families of the ‘Shine Heroes.’ It is not just about the project but also about how a final outcome can empower a community in the short term. This commitment is now the backbone of my artistic career.

Editor’s note: You can buy your own copy of Shine Heroes online.